By Dr. Ed Albin, Associate Professor and Program Director of Space Studies, American Public University System
For millions of Americans, Monday, August 21, 2017, presented a rare opportunity to see a spectacular total eclipse of the sun. The swath of totality made a diagonal path across the country, from Oregon to South Carolina. People within its bicoastal path saw one of nature’s most fascinating spectacles.
Many members of the APUS Space Studies department (faculty and students alike) traveled about the country to view and photograph the eclipse. I experienced 1:42 of totality in Helen, Georgia. It is hard to believe how much can happen in that short period of time. Prior to totality, the sky darkened as if you were wearing a pair of yellowish-tinted sunglasses. There was a noticeable drop in temperature, and then nearby streetlights came on.
At the moment of totality, there was a roar from the nearby crowd. Venus and Jupiter were clearly visible in the darkened sky. In a moment of silence when everyone was in awe, I could hear nocturnal crickets chirping in the background. The sun’s corona was one of the most unique and beautiful things I’ve ever witnessed! During this short period of time, the only technology I used was my cell phone camera to take a picture of the corona — I wanted to experience the event and not be distracted by technology.
With all of these sensory things happening at once, I mused about the uniqueness of the size and distance of our Moon relative to the sun. The Moon is approximately 400 times smaller, but the sun just happens to be 400 times farther away from Earth. This means that both the sun and the Moon have the same apparent size in the sky, allowing the Moon to exactly cover up the sun and cause a total solar eclipse. Nowhere else in the solar system does this happen.
It is only when the Moon is precisely lined up with the sun that a total eclipse occurs. This is what happened on Monday. If you were clouded out or missed the eclipse, no need to worry – mark your calendar for the next total eclipse in the United States on April 8, 2024!